Iraq Christians mourn kidnapped cleric’s death

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The leader of Iraq’s minority Christians urged them on Friday not to be cowed and to be “steadfast” in their faith after the kidnapped Chaldean Catholic archbishop was found dead in northern Iraq.

The abduction and death of Paulos Faraj Rahho, 65, was the most high-profile attack on Iraq’s Christians, who have been targeted by al Qaeda, since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

“I ask the people of the church to be steadfast and patient,” the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad and leader of Iraq’s Christians, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, told hundreds of mainly Christian mourners who crowded into a church near Rahho’s home village north of Baghdad to pay their last respects.

Rahho was abducted on February 29 after gunmen attacked his car and killed his driver and two guards. His body was found in a shallow grave in eastern Mosul on Thursday.

He had been in poor health and it was not clear how he had died, though Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday blamed his death on al Qaeda.

Police said he appeared to have been dead a week and his body showed no bullet wounds.

His death drew international condemnation, including from U.S. President George W. Bush and Pope Benedict.

Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite. They form the biggest Christian community in mostly Muslim Iraq, although tens of thousands are reported to have fled Iraq after threats from al Qaeda.

The U.S. military says Mosul is the last urban stronghold of the Sunni Islamist group, which has largely been driven from western Anbar province and Baghdad.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly spoken of his concern about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. A number of Christian clergy have been kidnapped and killed and churches bombed in Iraq since U.S.-led forces invaded.

RANSOM REPORTS

“I appeal to God that this awful act will help the peace process in this tortured country,” Delly told mourners in the Mar Eddy church in Rahho’s home village of Kramleis, east of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of the capital.

Scores of Christian clergy wearing full ceremonial vestments attended the service, reading passages from the Bible and chanting in front of Rahho’s closed coffin, which was covered with flowers and had a photograph of the 65-year-old cleric at its head.

Brigadier-General Khaled Abdul Sattar, the police spokesman for Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, told Reuters on Friday the kidnappers had demanded money.

“Reports reached us that there were talks between the kidnappers and relatives of the kidnapped archbishop … We heard that a ransom demand reached $1 million,” Sattar said.

Andraws Abuna in Baghdad, assistant to Cardinal Delly, said there had been talks between Christian officials and the kidnappers but he did not know of a ransom.

Some mourners blamed the invasion for triggering attacks on Christians, who make up about 3 percent of Iraq’s 27 million population.

“When the coalition forces came these things started to happen. We have not had discrimination between Christians and Muslims before. There are many Muslims here. He was well known by everyone,” Christian mourner Gabriel Siktor said.

A Muslim mourner echoed his comments.

“We’re really sorry for what’s happened. The archbishop used … to provide financial and other help. We are very close to Christians, they are our family and our neighbors. These problems started after the occupation,” Mohammed Hammoudy said.

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